Strings played at the bridge in streaking glissandi. Atonal clusters, filled in down to quarter-tones. Thundering piano chords. And what horror score is complete without the standard tool of surprise, the orchestra hit? These elements, in part derived from the early work of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, which was itself featured prominently by Stanley Kubrick in The Shining, have become staples of horror scoring. While some of these elements appear in Akira Yamaoka's scores for the Silent Hill series, he focuses more on slowly building and maintaining an unsettling atmosphere than on startling the audience, much like the games themselves. The music is not only atypical as game music, but also atypical as horror music, and while it manifests elements of various genres such as trip-hop, industrial, and hard rock from time to time, these influences are all filtered through the refracting prism of Yamaoka's idiom.
The Silent Hill Sounds Box collects all of the scores for the series' main installments, all of which have been released previously. Some of the scores were previously only available as promotional items, and the first game's soundtrack release has long fallen out of print. The box also includes a disc of extra previously unreleased material, including a few tracks from the series' arcade game spin-off, a DVD featuring trailer footage of several of the later games, and an art book showcasing some of the series' iconic monster designs.
Yamaoka's music is simple from a melodic and harmonic standpoint. Educated in design, not composition, he approaches music entirely intuitively. Very often, the Silent Hill series music is harmonically static or oscillates between two chords, and the rock pieces don't move very far away tonally, as is typical of the genre. However, this is not to say that the music is predictable. Yamaoka brings a spatial sensibility, learned from his training in design, to his music, especially to his atmospheric music, and imagining that the echoing synth pads and drum loops form the layout of a room, the elements that intrude are the objects within. As most atmospheric music is by its nature not goal-directed, an excess of harmonic and melodic material would simply be distracting. Instead of rambling formlessness, the repetition serves to underline the changes in instrumentation and ornamentation, which are much more significant than is usual in repetitive electronic music genres, giving form to what would seem amorphous. Moving about in these musical spaces leads to some objects being closer, others further away.
In-game, this serves to make the music not attract attention, and the score acts as a part of the overall sound design. Indeed, Yamaoka created the sound effects for each game in addition to their scores, and the first game's score is at times much more akin to sound design than music. But separated from the games themselves, what attracts one's attention to the scores is the wealth of variety of sounds in them. Synth pads and drum loops are present throughout, but Yamaoka manipulates even these basic elements such that the same sounds are rarely used more than a few times. This manipulation and processing, at times altering sounds until they are unrecognizable, is one of the foundations of the series' sound.
When the first Silent Hill game started development at Konami in response to the popularity of Capcom's Resident Evil, Akira Yamaoka volunteered himself as the one for the job. He produced an ambient score befitting the game's uneasy atmosphere, differing not only from game conventions but also those of the horror genre. Yamaoka has said that he was influenced by the Japanese aesthetic "wabi-sabi", which is based around fragility, simplicity, and impermanence. On the soundtrack album, tracks are very often run together, and at times begin before the previous track has faded away. Most of the contrast comes between tracks built on echoing noises and synth pads of ambiguous harmony, as in "Rising Sun", and those based on harsh and heavily compressed sonorities employed in polyrhythmic loops to indicate danger, as in "Until Death". Although tracks with recognizably melodic substance are extremely few and far between, Yamaoka's skill at manipulating these sounds makes for an interesting, if challenging, listen. As reprinted here, the disc lacks the Rika Muranaka's ending song, "Esperandote", which is inoffensive if bland, but as it doesn't fit stylistically with the rest of the album in any way, its absence makes for a more cohesive album.
Silent Hill 2, still regarded by some as the high point of the series, brought the series to the PlayStation 2, and its soundtrack contains less industrial noise material than the first. It contains more influence from rock and trip-hop, and is generally more melodic. "Theme of Laura" continues the tradition started by the first game's eponymous theme, a melancholic rock piece. The violin and vibraphone add flavor to the track. The theme comes back from time to time. The score is one of the series' most varied, ranging from the minimalist ostinati of "Promise (Reprise)" or "True" to the heavy metal track "Angel's Thanatos" and industrial noise tracks such as "Ashes and Ghost". Yamaoka also develops his talents in sound design and manipulation, with new and unexpected juxtapositions of sounds seemingly in every track. Overall, it remains the best score in the series, with every track contributing to the impressive whole.Silent Hill 3, the only game in the series with a female protagonist, is more straightforward and less ambient than its predecessors, and introduced the vocals of Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and Joe Romersa to the series. The songs are varied, "You're Not Here" being rock, "Letter - from the Lost Days" and Romersa's "Hometown" being trip hop, and "I Want Love" being electronic or rock, depending on the version. The lyrics here and elsewhere in the series, penned or adapted by Joe Romersa throughout, are not all that impressive and tend to scan awkwardly, but they remain less embarrassing than most video game songs in English. The rest of the score develops the sound heard in Silent Hill 2, but here most of the tracks are entirely separate from one another. Individual tracks tend to be more developed than in previous games, with some highlights being "Sickness Unto Foolish Death", "Maternal Heart", and "Rain of Brass Petals".
Silent Hill 4: The Room was the last game in the series developed by members of the original team, and it was a huge departure from the series' formula. Yamaoka's score is heavier, but strongly rooted in the preceding two games. There are fewer tracks than in previous games, but they are longer, and that length is fully justified by the tracks' increased structural complexity and development, as in "Waverer" or "Wounded Warsong". At other times, simple ideas were developed creatively, like "The Suicidal Clock Chime". McGlynn and Romersa returned for the songs, and they were better written this time around, at least from a musical standpoint. The simple yet effective "Room of Angel" is justly popular, but the harmonic ambiguities of "Your Rain" and the slow rocker "Cradel of Forest" (sic) are highlights as well. At the time, Yamaoka called this his favorite Silent Hill score, and it's certainly one of the series' best.
Silent Hill Zero (known internationally as Silent Hill Origins) was the first game in the series developed externally. Yamaoka returned for the score, and composed a cohesive score related more to Silent Hill 3 than to its immediate predecessor. Many of the tracks share certain elements, such as the dragging rhythm that appears in the opening song, "Shot Down in Flames", and also in "Murder Song 'S'", and others seem connected by association, such as the piano ending "A Million Miles" and opening "Battle Drums". The trip hop song "O.R.T." remains quiet throughout, while "Blow Back" feels entirely integrated with the rest of the music on the album. While its individual tracks may not be as distinct as the highlights of other Silent Hill scores, it is a finely crafted album.
Silent Hill Homecoming brought the series into the current generation, though the game was never released at all in Japan. Its score was oppressive and more ambient than any game after the first. It has strong moments, such as "Dead Monks" or "Snow Flower", but the rest of the score is weaker than the series' usual. Aside from the opening hard rock song, "One More Soul to the Call", and "This Sacred Line", the score contains no rock influence. The use of songs as character themes was an interesting idea, though, with McGlynn singing from the protagonists' perspectives. While the soundtrack received a promotional release, it is only available commercially as part of the Silent Hill Sounds Box. Overall, it is more of a footnote than a milestone in the series' musical legacy.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories was a recreation of the first game in the series. As such, Yamaoka uses that foundation to build something new, and although it turned out to be the last in the series that he would score while at Konami, it was a fitting conclusion. The score's integration and transformation of the old into the new is exemplified perfectly by the opening song, "Always on My Mind". The song itself is a classic that has been recorded by a number of artists over the years, Elvis among them, but Yamaoka's arrangement completely alters its nature, far more than the 80s electro-pop version by the Pet Shop Boys. The score uses more recognizable instrument samples in addition to the normal electronics and altered sounds, and jazz influence can be heard in "Childish Thoughts" and "Creeping Distress". The ending song, "Hell Frozen Rain", ties the whole disc together, bringing in a phrase from the first game's opening theme. Again, the soundtrack is only commercially available through the box set.
The set's bonus disc features a selection of unreleased and unused material. It may be nothing more than a collection of B-sides, but it lasts as long as some of the soundtracks, and the majority of it is strong material rather than discarded filler. Nearly half of the disc is given to Silent Hill 3, and nothing past The Room is featured, but tracks such as "AZUSA 1GO", "Queen of the Rodeo", and "KO", the last from Silent Hill 2, make this an entirely worthwhile bonus. The last few tracks are unfortunately from the worthless spin-off Silent Hill: The Arcade, and do not match the quality of the rest of the disc, or the set, for that matter.
The production values on the box set are top-notch. All of the cases for the individual discs feature unique cover art, and the black of the exterior case makes for a sleek overall package. Almost as attention-grabbing, the artwork in the booklet is printed on fine glossy paper, although it's a bit thin and contains no liner notes whatsoever. Unlike the bonus disc, the DVD is absolutely worthless, featuring only a small handful of trailers for the recent games, and only serves to needlessly drive up the price of the set. The oddest thing about the package, though, is the fact that Akira Yamaoka's name is not featured prominently anywhere on it. He merely receives a mention in the special thanks in the booklet, without any mention of his rather important role.
Although development of the series moved overseas starting with Silent Hill Zero, Yamaoka's presence throughout has helped to maintain continuity. The score for the next installment, Silent Hill Downpour, will be produced by American television composer Daniel Licht, and Yamaoka will instead work as creative director of Suda51's Grasshopper Manufacture. The Silent Hill series can, and should, be allowed to evolve, so in a sense, this box set is only a part of an ongoing project. But as Akira Yamaoka's part, it is a consistently fascinating experience, unpredictable and by turns of the utmost simplicity and the most unexpected complexity. Every score in the series, save perhaps for Silent Hill Homecoming, develops the series' trademark sound in new and different directions, and Yamaoka deserves full credit for creating something utterly different from almost any other video game music, and quite set apart from even its most obvious influences.